As leader of the expedition, I have come to realize that there is one thing more important than any other—and that is the respect of the men. It is more valuable than your gun, or your knife, or the blue terry-cloth slippers that keep your feet so toasty around the campfire at night.
In fact, the respect of the men can be even more important than the success of the mission itself. So if you're not exactly sure what the mission is, you may not want to ask the men, because you might lose their respect.
You don't get the respect of the men right away. You can try, by getting down in the dirt and begging them for it, or by kissing their boots, or by doing your funny cowboy dance for them. But trust me, these are not going to work.
No, respect is something that has to be earned. And earned slowly, like a fine, respectful wine. You can't try to earn it all at once, maybe by doing something like yelling out "Hey, watch this!" and then rolling all the way down the side of a hill. Even if you explain to the men that there could have been snakes and bees where you rolled, but you didn't care, it won't impress them. Rather, respect is earned by little things. Let's say you are leading the expedition through the bush, and you announce "I can't go on any farther!" But you do, for about five more hours, until you fall exhausted in the sand. Then you get up and make the men a nice dinner. Things like that.
Or later that night, around the campfire, you are toasting one of your marshmallows, using a stick that you broke off a tree with your bare hands. The marshmallow catches fire, and you wave it around to put it out. Even though it is out, the marshmallow is still smoky-hot, and sparky. But you just pop it straight into your mouth.
Or let's say you are riding your horse over some sharp rocks, so you get off to walk your horse, even though the rocks are really rough on your terry-cloth slippers. The men notice things like that. "You're gonna tear up those house shoes," one of the men might say to you. "I know," you mumble, because your mouth is still sore from the burning marshmallow.
That night you might check outside your tent to see if there is a present from the men, which, if you opened it, would be a new pair of slippers. But there isn't. And you smile to yourself, because you realize that the respect of the men is not the same as the love of the men.
But if it is difficult to gain the men's respect, it is easy to lose it. And the worst part is, you don't even know what it was you did. Was it trying to mash nine burning marshmallows into your mouth at once? Was it telling the men that you laugh at danger, but then not seeing any danger so you laugh at mountains and trees and horse manure? And Curtis's hat? Was it asking them about the hideous howls during the night that sounded like the lost souls of Hades shrieking in agony and torment, and the men not knowing what you're talking about, then having one of the men say, "Maybe it was a tree frog"?
You can never know for sure. But one thing is certain: You can't win back their respect with cheap parlor tricks or, say, a magic trick. Even if you take hours to learn the trick, and you gather the men around the campfire to perform it, and you use a little magic table that you made yourself, and even if the trick, you think, is performed pretty well, this is not going to rekindle the men's respect. You can tell from the looks they give one another, and the lack of applause. You may get a little respect if you get mad and throw the table and the trick parts into the fire, but that's about it. And you may get some respect from the dove for letting him go. But still you are wondering, What's wrong with these men? Come on, that was a good trick.
The respect of the men can be a cruel mistress and a harlot. But at other times it can be a nice mistress and a happy slut. You can't think about it too much. But if you ignore it, it can sneak up and coldcock you, like an angry prostitute.
You know it won't be easy, but one day you will again have the respect of the men. You don't know when or how. And you can't help thinking that maybe if you could explain to the men just how difficult the magic trick was, it would go a long way toward getting the whole respect thing going again.